No. 22 Florida vows to take ‘road-warrior mentality’ to Kentucky as it leaves cozy Swamp

The Wildcats have won three of the last five and had legitimate chances to eke out victories in 2017 and 2019
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz (15) looks to throw a pass against Charlotte during the first...
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz (15) looks to throw a pass against Charlotte during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)(John Raoux | AP)
Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 10:17 PM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s first three-game winning streak in three years happened at home, in the cozy confines of the Swamp.

If the 22nd-ranked Gators (3-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) are going to accomplish anything beyond making a middling bowl, they need to find similar success outside Gainesville. Florida has lost 14 of its last 16 games away from Florida Field, a staggering stretch of futility for a program accustomed to competing for championships.

Coach Billy Napier’s team will try to end a five-game skid in road or neutral-site games when it plays at Kentucky (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday. The Gators are 2 ½-point underdogs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

“I do think there are challenges that come with going on the road and playing in this league,” Napier said.

It’s not just the SEC.

Florida struggled to stay organized and get off plays in its opener at then-No. 14 Utah last month. The Gators were penalized nine times, including seven pre-snap infractions. False starts. Illegal formations. Delay of game. And a head-scratching violation for having two players wearing the same number during a punt return.

Those mistakes proved costly in a 24-11 loss. Florida has played much better since at home — most notably a 29-16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee — despite continued shortcomings on special teams.

But going on the road tends to make communication and consistency more difficult. Napier’s team averaged more than nine penalties a game away from Florida Field last season.

“You’ve got to have that road-warrior mentality,” quarterback Graham Mertz said. “There’s a mental approach. … We went to Utah, and we didn’t execute. We mentally didn’t have that edge. So across the board, we’re talking about that.

“We’ve got to go out and execute at a high level and just have fun doing it. That’s our plan.”

The Gators have dropped consecutive games in the series for the first time since 1976-77 and are trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak against Kentucky since legend Bear Bryant was the Wildcats’ coach.

Bryant and UK won four in a row against Florida between 1948 and 1951.

Florida dominated the series in the decades that followed, at least until recently. The Wildcats, who lost 31 straight to the Gators between wins in 1986 and 2018, have won three of the last five and had legitimate chances to eke out victories in 2017 and 2019.

They left receivers completely uncovered in both games, allowed Florida to rally behind backup quarterbacks and missed what likely would have been game-winning field goals in the final seconds.

It’s clear Kentucky has, at the very least, closed what used to be a considerable gap between the teams. Coach Mark Stoops is in his 11th season in Lexington while Florida has moved from Will Muschamp to Jim McElwain to Dan Mullen and now Napier during his tenure.

The recent results show just how much continuity matters.

Now, the Gators are the underdogs with something to prove — with performing better away from the Swamp atop the list.

“We’re going to come as hard as we can to possibly win on the road, first SEC game on the road,” defensive tackle Caleb Banks said. “We’re going to take that very personal and do what we’ve got to do to win.”